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the rogue linguist

How Not to Approach the Dutch Integration Exam

‘Your portfolio is incorrect and incomplete’

The Dutch version of this piece appeared in Trouw. An earlier English version appeared in Observant.

Image: Which side are you on?

I’m a white, well-educated English native speaker, married to an equally white, well-educated Dutchman from what they call a ‘good family’. Between the two of us we have eight degrees, including four from Cambridge, hanging on the walls of our home; in Amsterdam Oud Zuid, you understand. I speak Dutch and am due to give birth any day now to a Dutch baby, which will no doubt be called Cornelius-Christiaan or something equally outrageous.

My kind

Now and then I hear Dutch people airing their grievances about ‘foreigners’ in the country. When I gently point out that I’m a foreigner, the response is invariably, ‘Oh, but I don’t mean your kind’. It’s that elusive, yet telling, difference between what people call ‘expat’ versus ‘immigrant’.

And yet even for my kind, the integration exam is supremely denigrating. Take the Orientation to the Labour Market, one of the six exam components. In 13 pages of questions, nowhere does it ask whether you already have a job – your joblessness is simply assumed. This is how I find myself filling in fake application forms for a job at the supermarket Albert Heijn.

Education level? asks the form. ‘PhD’, I write.

What section would you like to work in? This is a tough one. Baked goods is the obvious choice, but the cheese counter runs a close second.

Not applicable

I imagined I could save everyone some time by answering not applicable to many questions. What further study do I need to qualify for my desired profession? N/A, I write, figuring this will be clear from the attached CV. Naively, it turns out – some two and a half months later the agency responsible, DUO, returns its verdict: ‘Het portfolio is niet compleet en niet goed’.

The second time round, I simply make things up. Out goes the real answer to ‘who in my network could help me write an application letter’; N/A, since most academic applications are in English. The belittling ‘I’d ask my husband for help’ goes down much better.


If the procedure is denigrating for my kind, then how must it be for others, particularly those in the group so blatantly targeted by the exam? Here’s an example practice question from the Knowledge of Dutch Society part: ‘Job and Mieke are Catholic. They install a statue of Maria in their garden. What should Ali do?’ The answer options are, loosely paraphrased, as follows: (a) demand that they remove it, (b) wait till night falls and topple it under the cover of darkness, or (c) nothing, because who gives?

It’s hard to escape the sense that whoever came up with this expects answers like ‘… because he’ll be busy wiring up a bomb from his toaster’.

Ali reappears in a number of questions, and we are told he works in a factory. There are further cameos by Fatima, a cleaner, and someone called Faisal, with sentences to complete like ‘Faisal’s neighbour Joke invites him to her birthday party on Wednesday. Faisal can’t go because …’ It’s hard to escape the sense that whoever came up with this expects answers like ‘… because he’ll be busy wiring up a bomb from his toaster’. Instead I settle for ‘… because as a paediatric oncologist he’ll be hard at work on Wednesday, like most immigrants’.

Do the brains behind this really think treating minorities as worthless, braindead or four years old is the best way to promote integration?

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Alison Edwards PhD

I am a linguistics researcher, translator, editor, writer, and lover of tennis, infrastructure, and collared shirts done all the way up. Read more

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